Life, Death & Rebirth.
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[The angel said to the women at the tomb] “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised”. Luke 24:5
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These three days are the holiest in the Christian calendar. They commemorate the events which are the foundation of Christian faith and hope. They are both terrible and wonderful, deadly and full of life. From the grinding, unspeakable crucifixion of the Lord to his triumph over all sin and death and his promise to be with us for all time, this is the glowing Christian message for all time and all people: Life will always and everywhere triumph over death. Hope will always confound despair; love is eternally life-giving, and each one of us, without exception, is welcome into this light and hope-filled world. Within these three days, Jesus revealed the heart of his teaching, and gave us the perfect example of what it means to be Christian. From insisting on washing his disciples’ feet to forgiving those who had unjustifiably crucified him, from giving us his body and blood at the Last Supper so he could be with us forever, to his command to love one another no matter what, the heart of the Christian way of life was forever revealed. Although down through the centuries this perfect message has been torn and sullied, the saints among us, forever guided by God’s Holy Spirit, even today, have always called us back to the truth.
So, on Holy Thursday Jesus gave us two great commands. At the Last Supper, he told us to “do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19). And this memory was, and is, the real thing (and is considered to be the foundation of the priesthood), for we believe that the blessed bread and wine are the Body and Blood of the Lord, forever present with us and to us. And he also said on that same evening “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12) and demonstrated it vividly by washing their feet. This command, or mandate, has given us the name Maundy (Mandate) Thursday.
On Good Friday, Jesus was called to justify himself, and in doing so to condemn himself to an ignominious death. At his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus heard the voice from heaven state he was God’s Son, and God’s Holy Spirit descended on him, confirming that statement, and anointing him, an action which proclaimed he was the Anointed of God, the Messiah, the Christ. He was given both his identity as Son of God, and his vocation, to be the Messiah of God. So when, according to Mark’s gospel, the oldest and bluntest of the gospels, the high priest asked him point blank, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One? Jesus answered “I AM”, which instantly condemned him to death for blasphemy as it echoed the ineffable and unspeakable Name of God, but, if he was to be loyal both to his identity and his vocation, he had to answer that way (Mark 14:61-62) or he would have betrayed everything he stood for, his mission in ruins.
Jesus Before Caiaphas the High Priest, Flemish c. 1515, Getty Museum Collection, Los Angeles, USA.
Jesus was quickly condemned to death by the Roman governor, the only person with the power to do so, to placate the crowds, incensed that this man, whom they had thought was the long-promised messiah to crush the Roman occupiers and restore the kingdom of David, was not. They had greeted him as such the previous Sunday, only to find that he had not called them to arms, had not led the charge against the gentile, pagan, unclean Romans and was, therefore, a vile imposter who deserved to die for not fulfilling their stereotype of the messiah.
“eli eli lama sabachtani” (My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?), Plasschaert 1913, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
And so Jesus’ life ended in ignominy, shame, agony and abject failure. Matthew 27:45-46 has Jesus crying out “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” quoting Psalm 22. For indeed he looked out on a world where every semblance of a loving God seemed to have vanished, yet, as C.S. Lewis says, he still obeyed (The Screwtape Letters, Harper San Francisco 2001, pp.40-41).
There followed the silence of the tomb and then the unwitnessed, unparalleled and utterly confounding event which changed everything: Jesus rose from the dead. Not one word in any of the four gospels describes this event. We are simply told the tomb was empty, save some burial cloths where he was once laid to rest. Matthew has two women who had followed Jesus come to the tomb, witness an earthquake, an angel descending from heaven rolling back the tombstone, showing them the empty interior, and sending them off to tell the others what had happened. Jesus met them on the way…. Mark’s original ending is simply three women seeing the tomb but with a “young man” there who told them that Jesus was risen, and that they were to tell the others to go to Galilee. Luke tells us that four women went to the tomb and could not find the body. Two men “in dazzling apparel” greeted them with the words that he was risen. Finally, John tells us that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to see that the stone entrance had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. She ran back to Peter and “the other disciple” usually assumed to be John. They rushed off to and entered the empty tomb. Mary was weeping outside, and Jesus approached her, she not recognizing him. They had a sort of chat, and then Jesus simply said “Mary” and she understood. Interesting that in all four gospels it is the women who discover the empty tomb and who are the first to whom the risen Jesus speaks….
The Women at the Tomb, Shaftesbury Psalter, c.1125, The British Library, London, UK.
And so, I wish you a very holy and happy Easter with many blessings. Remember the strength of the Lord, the generosity of the Lord and the faithfulness of the Lord, both to God and to us. He stood by the identity and vocation he received at his baptism. We have the exact same identity given to us at our Baptism, as a child of God, and vocation, to be Christ to the world in the way God wants us to be according to the gifts we have been given. With Jesus at our side, as he promised, we are never alone, but girded with his strength and determination, his help and his love. Alleuia! He is risen!
The Resurrection, Judson Studios , Church of the Resurrection, Kansas City, Kansas, USA.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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